OER 2.0? Not Yet

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A few weeks ago I and the MERLOT management team joined about 300 other people and attended the Textbook Affordability Conference (TAC) in San Diego. If you haven’t visited San Diego, it’s probably one of the nicest cities in the country, and it should be on your bucket list.

This conference was the first of its kind, and there are more like it planned starting later this year.  TAC was sponsored by a number of textbook publishers, college bookstores in the University of California System, the California Community Colleges System, the California State University System, and other government agencies. It was different than most conferences because all the sessions were sequential – no parallel sessions. This gave us an opportunity to hear from all the speakers at the conference over the 2-days of sessions. Given the title of the conference it’s no surprise that most of the speakers talked about the high cost of higher education in general, and in particular the rising costs of textbooks and support material.

One of the speakers who shall go unnamed, spoke about Open Educational Resources (OER) in the context of so-called open textbooks. In fact, he proclaimed that combining traditional Web-based textbooks together with supplementary Learning Objects is ushering in a new era of OER.  He claimed that this was OER 2.0 — his company’s contribution to the world of affordable textbooks. I have to say that I was pretty surprised to hear someone who I thought should know better be so clueless about the definition of OER and of Learning Objects. But I guess this is what sales and marketing is about. But that’s a discussion for another time.

Learning Objects have been around and defined in various environments and by a number of international standards groups for years. While there are many standards, they all have certain common characteristics. Learning Objects are describable with metadata, are all digital, Web-based, concerned with teaching and learning, etc. One of the most significant characteristics of Learning Objects is that they can be combined to form new and different Learning Objects, but with a new set of metadata. Online textbooks can be characterized as Learning Objects, and they can be combined with other OER support materials that are also Learning Objects. Together they can simply form new Learning Objects, but with a new set of metadata. For example, you can combine a number of course modules (Learning Objects), each with its own set of metadata, to form an online course, a new Learning Object with its own set of metadata. There is nothing OER 2.0 about this.

If we’re really going to talk about OER 2.0, we should be talking about Learning Object standards with metadata that include metrics related to the effectiveness of the Learning Object. Some LO standards already have metadata about subjective user ratings or opinions, but nothing about the measurable effectiveness of the Learning Objects in real learning situations. Certainly this is not an easy task to address, but until effectiveness metrics are a part of the metadata in Learning Objects standards, practitioners will have a tough time knowing whether or not a Learning Object might be of use to them in their own classrooms.

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